The root of “jungle”: It’s a desert out there?

Today in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, a closely watched “jungle primary” is taking place to fill the seat left by Republican Tom Price, who is now the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

In a jungle primary, a more colorful name for a blanket primary, all candidates seeking an office run against each other at once, as opposed to in separate primaries broken out by political party. The top two voters getters, regardless of party, then face off in a runoff election, except in some places like Georgia, where a candidate who gets a majority of votes wins outright.

While Washington state introduced blanket primaries in the 1930s, the phrase jungle primary emerges in the 1980s. The idea is that such a primary is like a cutthroat free-for-all, that “It’s a jungle out here.” But what about the word jungle itself? Where we do get this word from?

Jungle, a fitting word for politics and etymology. (Pixabay)

“Waste” lands

The word jungle comes from the Hindi jangal, rooted in the Sanskrit jangala-s: “arid” or “sparsely grown with trees.” In other words, the etymological jungle was a desert.

One of its earliest known uses of jungle in English appears in Nathaniel Brassey Halhed’s 1776 translation of A Code of Gentoo Laws. Halhed was a British scholar employed by the East India Company to translate this important legal text, which concerned Hindu laws of inheritance, from Persian into English. In a section on the ownership rules about different types of “fallow or waste lands,” Halhed writes: “Land Waste for Five Years, or whatever longer time it may happen, such land is called Jungle.”

Part of the longer title of Halhed’s translation, interestingly, was A Code of Gentoo Laws, or Ordinations of the Pundits. And indeed, pundit comes from the Hindi pandit. Pandit meant, long before any TV talking head, “a learned person, master, teacher.”

Hacking through the semantic jungle

But how does jungle go from “desert” to “dense forest”? Some English words help provide a clue. A desert comes from the Latin for “abandoned.” A forest may derive from the Latin for “outside the walls of a park.” The waste in wasteland is from the Latin vastus, “empty” and source of vast. And wilderness is an Old English compound, wild-deor, essentially a “wild deer.”

Jungle, similarly, wasn’t historically about a particular kind of ecosystem in Indic languages. It was about land beyond human cultivation and habitation. There is a sense, too, of the Indian jungle etymon, as we saw in the Gentoo Code, of grasses and shrubs that have grown over abandoned or untended lands, much as we see weeds, say, take over shuttered lots in run-down industrial areas.

While English ecologically narrowed jungle to “dense forest,” it metaphorically expanded it to a “wild, tangled mess” by 1850. And the brutal competitiveness of “It’s a jungle out there,” was, speaking of politics, popularized by Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel and Chicago meatpacking exposé, The Jungle.     

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